concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2009


Doubt in Middle Way philosophy should be distinguished from the conventional use of the word 'doubt', which does not provide any distinction between helpful and unhelpful types of doubt. The Middle Way philosophy sense of 'doubt' always refers to unhelpful doubt, because the term 'doubt' is one way of identifying a dogmatic psychological state where the mind is in conflict.

Whilst conventional 'doubt' consists in conscious and recognisable mental conflict impeding judgement, 'doubt' as identified by the Middle Way refers to unacknowledged and repressed mental conflict. Awareness focused on that mental conflict may lead to its resolution into confidence, but without such awareness, one of the two conflicting views will temporarily suppress the other, leading to an unstable, brittle state of over-assertion. One may assert either that one does know or that one does not know what is true or right, but either way the over-assertion characteristic of doubt involves an incapacity to assess one's experience in a balanced or open way.

Whether a state of ordinary hesitation or indecision is really doubt in this sense depends on whether it is accompanied by an assumption of the impossibility of progress. We may hesitate for a long time, and yet that hesitation just be an indication of a confident care in weighing up the evidence. When hesitation becomes doubtful is when it prevents us from feeling justified in reaching a fallible decision, and thus prevents us acting in confidence (meaning in the recognition both that we might be wrong, and that a decision was needed and we made a reasonable job of it). The metaphysical need for infallibility prevents us from accepting fallible judgement, so instead we leap one way or the other to an infallible judgement whilst repressing the feelings that might support the opposite view. 

It is doubt that creates dogmatic states of mind, and those dogmatic states of mind that enable the continuation of metaphysics, that is, theory of a kind formed to be acceptable to doubtful minds. Whether you accept or reject belief in God, for example, is a function of doubt. Whenever we may manage to overcome doubt in our individual experience, the continuing influence of metaphysics creates a social influence that often subtly drags us back into states of doubt.  

Why adopt and redefine a widely-used word? Because to do so is to relate to existing experience of doubt but give it a push in a useful direction. The justification for this definition, as all other terms in Middle Way philosophy, is not just 'descriptive' or analytic, but also normative and pragmatic. It is useful to reflect that in one important sense, the preacher in the pulpit afire with certainty is probably the most doubtful person in the church. Such states of subjective certainty can only be achieved by the most rigid rejection of all aspects of one's experience that point the other way, and these rejected energies and their associated beliefs do not go away, but rather lay siege to those who pretend to certainty, as some of the greatest novelists have recorded. However, it is also important to remember that it is not only the preacher is doubtful, but equally the type of atheist who rejects his assertions with equal certainty of their falsehood. We need to put our vocabulary of doubt, like other items of our vocabulary that pretend to moral neutrality, to a more morally useful purpose.

This use of the word doubt derives from a Buddhist term (in Pali, vicikiccha). However, the elements of insight in this traditional Buddhist concept are often confused with an absence of faith in Buddhist tradition or in enlightened beings - ideas that are simply likely to give rise to another round of doubt in most people. There is a Buddhist tradition of the analysis of doubt in meditational experience, however, which can be a useful source of insights into the wider phenomenon of doubt.

Related discussion

'Doubt' in thesis (scroll down to d ii)

Faith and the Middle Way

Dogmatism and Scepticism in thesis

The concept of confidence


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